Pakistan’s President Musharraf Walking a Tightrope

For many Pakistanis, the choice between military rule and the corrupt civilian governments of the past is a dismaying one.

As General Pervez Musharraf closes his seventh year as Pakistan's president, the debate rages over how long he can remain at the helm of power. In Oct. 1999, he overthrew the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, continuing Pakistan’s pattern of alternating between military and civilian rule and making him the fourth military ruler in the country's short history. Pakistan’s leading opposition parties argue it is unconstitutional for the serving President to be Army Chief at the same time. In 2005, Musharraf reneged on his pledge to step down from the position as head of the Armed Forces and confirmed that he would remain as both head of state and army.

For Musharraf’s supporters, he is the saviour of the country, the man who prevented Pakistan from becoming a failed state and perhaps, as has recently come to light, from being bombed by the United States. Indeed, Musharraf, who prides himself on being the master “tightrope walker,” made a dramatic change in Pakistan’s foreign policy following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has emerged as a frontline state indispensable to the Bush administration’s self-styled “War on Terror.” It severed its long-standing links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, paving the way for the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance to come to power in Kabul. The Pakistani government has also provided the United States with unprecedented military and intelligence support and is jointly carrying out a controversial military operation to find Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, which has resulted in scores of unaccounted for civilian deaths.

When Musharraf came to power, Pakistan — a declared nuclear state since 1998 — was on the verge of bankruptcy. Today with the help of U.S. financial assistance and the competent leadership of the former international banker turned Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan has foreign reserves in excess of $11 billion. The commercial capital, Karachi, which hosted one of Asia’s best performing stock exchanges last year, is symbolic of this new-found affluence, as an emerging middle class and nouveau riche become more visible in the city.

In comparison to its Middle Eastern neighbours to the west, Pakistan has never been a police state even under periods of military rule. Under President Musharraf’s government, Pakistani electronic media has experienced an unprecedented boom, with dozens of new private channels springing up, many of which air opinions and debates that are openly critical of his government.

President Musharraf often justifies his rule by saying that he is paving the way for “true democracy” in Pakistan. Unfortunately, he is not the first military leader to espouse such noble intentions. But under his rule, many of the country’s civilian institutions critical to the re-establishment of democracy in the country have been weakened, not strengthened. Today, the leaders of Pakistan’s two main political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, are in exile. Parliament is divided between a political faction loyal to the President and the main opposition parties who have become increasingly united on one issue: to end Musharraf’s rule and completely restore civilian rule in the country. The President has promised to hold national elections in 2007, but many skeptics argue it will be eyewash so long as the American government continues to have faith in Musharraf.

For many Pakistanis, the current situation carries a sense of déjà vu from the 1980s when another Republican U.S. administration aligned itself with a military ruler in Pakistan. That, of course, happened during the final years of the Cold War when President Ronald Reagan conveniently ignored the lack of democratic credentials of the government of General Zia-Ul-Haq in return for his support for U.S. efforts to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Supporting armed jihad and Islamic fundamentalism in those days was part of the explicit U.S. policy in the battle against the godless “evil empire,” as Reagan called the Soviet Union — a policy that eventually came back to haunt the United States. Today, President Musharraf is viewed by many in the West as the best and only defence against Islamic extremism in Pakistan, a fear his critics in Pakistan argue has been over-stated to justify his continued rule.

Supporting Musharraf is the easy, but certainly not only, option. It is in the long-term interest of the United States to support democracy and return civilian rule to Pakistan, and to nudge Musharraf towards undertaking such reforms. The unprecedented cooperation the U.S. government has received from the Pakistani military in its search for Al Qaeda cannot come at the expense of sacrificing democracy in Pakistan. The U.S. government should make it clear that it will work to empower civilian governments in Pakistan and that continued foreign and military aid will be contingent upon democratic reform in the country.

The Pakistani case is illustrative of the wider contradictions of American foreign policy in the Muslim world. The United States champions the cause of democracy and human rights around the world while continuously aligning itself with authoritarian Muslim governments. It is this perceived hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy that enrages many in the Muslim world. Today, Musharraf critics routinely rebuke him for being America’s puppet in the region, a perception that only further strengthens the idea that the United States is not seriously committed to furthering democracy in the region.

For many Pakistanis, the choice between military rule and the corrupt civilian governments of the past is a dismaying one. What is certain is that one of the most pivotal countries of the Muslim world’s future cannot be left in the hands of one individual. Free and fair elections in 2007 are just one part of what should be a complete transfer from military to civilian rule in the country. Rejuvenating Pakistan’s shattered political institutions and ending the complex power struggle between its civilian and military leadership is going to be an even greater challenge.

Rehan Rafay Jamil is a senior at Oberlin College where he is majoring in Politics & History. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.